The Global Barfly’s Companion #7 by Scott Gilman
Bar: The Cloak Room
Location: 1300 Colorado St, Austin, TX 78701
As I am walking north on Colorado on a humid but comfortable night, tall, expansive trees provide visual cover from what really shades The Cloak Room bar just past 13th Street: the Texas State Capitol. There is a Trail of Trees within the Capitol grounds; on this block you’d be nearest the Bur Oak and Redbud. The orange light emanating from the top of the Capitol dome indicates the legislature is in session; for four months every two years, representatives and senators from Killeen and El Paso to Tyler and Houston descend upon Austin to collectively determine the policies of one of the most successful, backwards, proud and largest states in the country.
I walk down a tight flight of white stairs to a white door that looks like the entrance to a storage facility. Stevie Ray Vaughan plays on the sound system. It would either be him or Willie, wouldn’t it?
Long past happy hour, The Cloak Room on a Friday evening is still full, the lights so dark you can barely make out people’s faces, several men, likely elected officials, wearing suits, younger men and women in their 20s and 30s, likely legislative aides (no one dresses this formally in Austin) are several drinks in, talking loudly about church-state separation as they scroll through their mobile phones.
It’s a smaller room than I remembered, the bar consisting of just five stools. I sit at one and see the bottles of whiskey lined up; I look to see what beer they have but don’t see any cans or bottles on display. I ask the bartender and it’s a particularly down-market selection, so I settle on a Shiner Bock. A TV is playing a basketball game.
Looking around, what stands out most prominently is the wood paneling of the walls. If you took out the bar this space feels like it could function as an extension meeting room of the Capitol; with the bar, it probably is.
A woman comes up to the bar and strikes up a conversation with the bartender. Bev, it turns out, has a worn face and long, straggly blondish hair; she’s been the bartender here since 1989. The woman orders a double Bulleit rye for her boyfriend, a single Bulleit rye for herself, and a Shiner Bock for each of them.
Country music is now playing, and I moan. I go to the jukebox and it seems the most recent music might have been added by Bev herself when she started; besides some Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson and of course Stevie, everything else is old R&B (Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke) or country (Waylon Jennings, Boz Scaggs, Ray Price). I put on Etta James, Elvis and some more Stevie.
To use the restroom you go towards the back with the saloon-type swinging doors, then up the stairs (how often does that happen?) in a stairwell lined with photos from past visitors.
Have that many people really come here? It makes it seem like it’s a pilgrimage of some sort to visit the Cloak Room.
I’m nursing my beer when a couple comes in and sits next to me. He’s wearing a coat and tie and she has on a nice dress. They leave after one drink (she a glass of red wine, him a Maker’s Mark) and then after a few minutes another couple comes in.
Bev has disappeared so they wait patiently, smiling at each other, until the bartender returns. The woman drinks a Maker’s with amaretto while he orders a shot of tequila. As I nurse my second Shiner Bock, the three women and one man at the table behind me start singing to the Etta James. Then the large group who was sitting in the darkest part of the bar gets up and leaves; it appears the day’s governing business is done.
The music stops and the bar is silent. Bev arranges the paper slips with everyone’s orders in a row along the bar. She says, “They might be walkin’ but I’ve got their credit card. They’ll be back.”
I finish my beer and go back up the stairs to use the restroom before leaving. Before I swing through the saloon doors again, I notice a pay phone and phone book. When was the last time either were used?
Back up the stairs and outside, walking to my car, there is no traffic around the Capitol. It is quiet. The orange light is still on. Session, as it’s referred to, continues.
Scott Gilman lives in Austin, Texas and enjoys exercise, reading, writing, eating and drinking. He is working on his first novel and a short story and essay collection. More of his writing can be found here.